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Real estate agent John Maloof explains how a trip to a local auction house, in search for old pictures to use for a history book about his neighborhood, resulted in him bidding and winning a box full of old negatives. John goes through the massive quantity of negatives, describes how impressed he is by the quality of the images, becomes quickly determined they are not reverent to his project and just puts them away. That could have very likely had been the end of the story, if the power of the images had not pushed him to fall in love with photography. John confides that his photo hobby quickly motivated him to set up a darkroom and devote large amounts of time shooting. As he learned more about photography, he recognized that those negatives he had bought, then stored, were the work of a real master. In an attempt to confirm his suspicion, he selected about 100 images and put them online with the hope that the feedback would confirm his judgement as to the strength of the images. Written by
Lane J. Lubell of Cinemashadow.com
The documentary "Finding Vivian Maier," written and directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, tells the fascinating tale of a woman who lived and died in obscurity - then, through a serendipitous fluke of fate and an undiscovered talent for photography, became well known and celebrated long after her death. So much so that they even went and made a movie about her.
The saga began when Maloof, a young historian/filmmaker, bought a box of negatives at an auction in 2007. The negatives, it turned out, belonged to a woman named Vivian Maier, born in 1926, who had spent most of her adult life taking pictures of the world around her - more than 150,000 of them to be exact. Vivian never shared her work with the people in her life, even though the images were of a quality to rival some of the world's greatest and most famous photographers. Intrigued by what he had unearthed - the treasure trove included many 8 MM films as well - Maloof decided to re-create the life of this talented woman by seeking out those who knew her and using their knowledge of her to help piece it all together. It seems that Vivian spent her life as a nanny to the well-off families of Chicago; in fact, she was hired by no less a figure than Phil Donahue to look after his four children for a short time.
Through the movie, there emerges a portrait of an eccentric, intensely private woman, who never married and was seemingly devoid of family, who kept her personal background a secret, frequently used pseudonyms, affected a phony French accent (despite the fact that she was a native New Yorker), voiced strong opinions on politics and society, and traveled the world with only a camera for a companion, continually documenting, through both stills and film, the world as she and few others saw it.
One of the interviewees describes Vivian's work as reflecting "the bizarreness of life, the incongruencies of life, and the unappealing- ness of human beings." Yet, what comes through most vividly in her work is its humanity, her ability to capture the essence of people from all ages and walks of life in a single moment in time.
However, if you thought "Finding Vivian Maier" would turn out to be one of those unalloyed "feel good" movie experiences, you'd be sadly mistaken. For not everything we learn about the woman behind the camera is uplifting, charming and inspiring. In fact, the movie takes a decidedly dark turn in the latter half, as a number of the children she oversaw recount some of the abuse - both physical and emotional - they suffered at her hands.
She is described by some who knew her as "damaged" and "past eccentric,' riddled with mental illness, paranoia, and a compulsion for hoarding.
She became more and more isolated from the world as she entered old age, reduced to dumpster-diving for food. and becoming increasingly reliant on the kindness of strangers before death finally came for her in 2009.
Yet, now her work adorns the walls of many an art gallery the world over, as ever-increasing legions of admirers come to appreciate her talent.
For all its speculation, the movie demonstrates at least a certain amount of self-awareness by admitting that it may be a trifle unfair to judge a person and the life she led based entirely on how others saw and felt about her, without the person being given a chance to clarify or defend herself.
In a way, Vivian Maier is a stand-in for all the nameless, faceless people who surround us unnoticed, the vast majority of people who live their lives in relative obscurity and leave little real mark on the world after they're gone. Except, thanks to the fickle finger of fate and her own unique talent, Vivian did leave a mark, one that will be admired and appreciated for generations to come.
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